From MLK Jr. to ACT-UP to Pussy Hats

PUSSY HATS

As January comes to a close, two weeks after honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and the beginning of Black History Month — I am struck again by the call to activism.  I find myself reflecting on the civil rights movement and nonviolent disobedience as practiced in the late 50s through early 70s by various social justice movements. I also reflect on today’s political environment. Some of us find ourselves reeling on a daily basis at the brazenness of the Trump Administration. Some protest, some actively engage in social media, and others find themselves emotionally overwhelmed.

The protests and organizing has been truly inspirational: I find that many activists working diligently, especially from the 60s and 70s, under the legacy of MLK Jr, have donned their colors, tie-dies, picket signs and now pussy hats.  Most of all though, they have borrowed the methods from those of the civil rights movement. Not all is as it was: communication is certainly updated for the modern age with social media providing platforms for scheduling these activities. Social media has also been able to help us able to track things like the increased murders of trans women of color that may not have been connected previously.  The #MeToo movement is perhaps the most visible statement of the power of the new tools as we watch firing of many prominent long-term powerbrokers as more women come forward to bring forth the previously unvoiced truth.

But there’s something lacking in these modern day movements: the joy, the defiant radiant passion for life that reminds us why we fight.  None of us has a limitless supply of energy.  We need activism that feeds our spirit.  More than that we need activism that not only informs and names dominant paradigms but that succeeds regardless of the response of those in power. This where a tool from the tool basket is missing.

MLK Jr. was experimenting and discovering best targets and means while working on the civil liberties movement, sometimes making missteps. So, too, does each new iteration of the social justice movement need to reestablish the best means given the current situation.  Just as there is civic innovation, so too, exists activist innovation.  Activist innovation has been happening continuously from before the mutilation of the hermai in ancient Athens to Gandhi’s hunger activism to the AIDS epidemic in various formats.  The most relevant to the current situation is the last: the AIDS epidemic. 

While the first cases of AIDS that were named in the US showed up in 1982; the movement that we know really developed in 1987 with the burgeoning ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) group inspired by Larry Kramer. Art activism was stitched into it from the beginning through the slogan SILENCE = DEATH .

The equal sign is both mathematical and metaphoric and may be read as a question, proposition, challenge, or assertion, each with the capacity to support multiple interpretations. For example, the sign’s logic may be applied to state-level failures to address the epidemic adequately as well as to silence of individuals who deny that they are implicated in the epidemic. The logo may also be read as a call to those living with AIDS to announce their status and mobilize in solidarity with others. That is, the statement not only represents aspects of the crisis, it is also a statement of analysis and provokes actions aimed at changing the conditions of the crisis.

The pink triangle is an intrinsic part of the image and adds a critical historical dimension that underscores the urgency of the slogan. The Nazi regime required homosexuals to wear pink triangles, a visual marker equivalent to the Star of David worn by Jews. Thousands of homosexuals were interned in concentration camps during this period and were exterminated along with Jews, Gypsies, and others. In the 1960s, gay activists claimed the pink triangle as the emblem of the struggle for sexual rights, and its inclusion in the SILENCE=DEATH image creates continuity between that movement and ACT UP’s mobilization against AIDS. The inclusion of the pink triangle also advances the position that the failure to act to end the epidemic, particularly on the part of state officials, is a form of genocide.

ACT UP’s tactics created a new series of interruptions from business as usual.  Die-ins; storming the FDA; fun, stylish safer sex demonstrations conveyed powerful messages.  Those messages were at the heart of similarly powerful demands:

STOPPING THE EPIDEMIC AT ALL COSTS

Stopping pharmaceutical companies profiteering from AIDS. 

Free needle exchanges.


Narrow, homophobic definition of AIDS that did not include infections that affect women and injection drug users.


FDA years long drug approval process during a deadly epidemic that slowed possible life-saving measures from those under a death sentence.


Addressing NIH’s (National Institutes of Health) failure to prioritize underrepresented populations such as women and people of color.


Stopping US government’s resistance to prioritizing AIDS spending while indulging in a billion dollar Gulf War.


The end of the demonization of sexuality and homosexuality.

Response was powerful both externally and internally and created a lasting heritage.  There was rapid progress in response on some fronts, though some remain to this day (Big Pharm, statistical weighting, sex education for example). Women were not studied or even properly diagnosed as AIDS sufferers; often not receiving disability or health benefits.  Protesters chanted “Murder by Omission; Change Your Definition.”

Today, we have treatment and AIDS is not only not a death sentence but has a preventive medication, and AIDS is in large part no longer seen as Gay Cancer.

Changes in response to the epidemic were not the only change however.  Attitudes significantly shifted.  In 1987, according to poles, 15 percent of Americans wanted AIDS sufferers tattooed and 50 percent wanted them quarantined. Those changes had significant ripples throughout the LGBTQ community. 

Queer Nation created Kiss-ins.  These were powerful for not only presenting actual couples to a culture unused to seeing this publicly but more importantly inspired the protesters to be proud and unabashedly queer in public space.  This representation of visibility was carried further as the Lesbian Avengers carried slogans such as We Recruit, Be the Bomb You Throw and infiltrated Exodus International to release locusts on the “Ex-Gay” headquarters.

These acts which should include arts activism like the Names Project for the AIDS quilt which continues to this day changed a generation of protesters and therefore a nation.  By the end of the decade there was not only a push for Marriage Equality but shows like Will and Grace and public figures coming out of the closet.

As one of the founding members of the San Francisco chapter of the Lesbian Avengers let me assure you those were great times.  I looked forward to the next meeting or action, not as a release from dread, but out of what we were going to do next and what we could accomplish.  We started in 1993. Some of us learned to eat fire; we went on dates both as a social activity and as an action; carried a coffin to the doors of a prison in coalition with other groups to bring to light the issue of AIDS for imprisoned women, especially lesbians, dressed as Mrs. and Mrs. Claus in lavender Santa suits to go to the mall.  In short, we caused trouble and had fun. We danced in our revolution.  Who is bringing the disco ball to this revolution?  Where’s the band, the fun, the moments when we remember we are human together and not just victims together?  Let’s break out the other toolbox.  I imagine glitter bombing the president by drone; subway flash mobs doing native dances of those being deported; interactive art exhibits in public squares making clear the plight of those affected by current policy; beautifully painted cardboard cities that look like Trump Towers. 

A world of possibilities exists. Who’s with me?

 

Reilly Hirst

Reilly Hirst is a poet, philosopher and activist living in the Rochester, New York. She (insert pronoun here-she/xem/amphibian) started writing at age 10.  Published in Patrick Califia’s book Bitch Goddess, Reilly has also done doctoral work in public policy, written academic articles as well as precedent-setting briefs for protecting the community blood bank system involving AIDS blood bank litigation, and is now the food columnist for the Empty Closet (second oldest running LGBTQ newspaper in the country).  In her “spare” time, she writes and reads poetry, and gets out, like a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] In 5th century BCE,  someone (or someones) castrated  all the hermai throughout the city of Athens.  Keuls argues in her work that it was a political act of rebellion.  Keuls, Eva C. The Reign of the phallus: sexual politics in ancient Athens. University of California Press, 1993.

[2] Originally, called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Disorder) and understood to attack the 4H club: Homosexuals, Heroin addicts, Haitians, and Hemophiliacs.

[3] Sember, Robert, and David Gere. “"Let the Record Show . . .": Art Activism and the AIDS Epidemic.” American Journal of Public Health, © American Journal of Public Health 2006, June 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470625/.

[4] “HIV/AIDS.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Nov. 2017, www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/overview/index.html.

[5] Filar, Ray. “Silence = death: Sarah Schulman on ACT UP, the forgotten resistance to the AIDS crisis.” OpenDemocracy, 30 Jan. 2014, www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/ray-filar/silence-death-sarah-schulman-on-act-up-forgotten-resistance-to-aids-crisis.

[6] “Lesbian Avenges: San Francisco.” Lesbian Avengers | San Francisco, CA, www.lesbianavengers.com/chapters/san_francisco.shtml.

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